A Chemical Arms Race, and Bogus Health Claims

By Barry Estabrook

Superherbicides vs. Superweeds

Last week I noted that agribusiness giant Monsanto was scaling back its profit projections in the face of generic competition for its weed killer Roundup. Now, it turns out that the popular herbicide is getting some stiff competition from the weeds themselves.

Monsanto has profited greatly from selling "Roundup Ready" seeds. These varieties have been genetically engineered (GE) to survive being slathered in the company's pesticide, which kills competing weeds. For years environmentalists have warned that the near-universal use of the herbicide on corn, soybeans, and cotton would eventually give rise to superweeds that also could survive Roundup—call them "Roundup Resistant." Sure enough, that now is happening all over the farm belt.

But don't cheer the downfall of Roundup. It turns out that in the world of herbicides, glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has the questionable distinction of being relatively benign. Charles Benbrook, a scientist at the Organic Center, an advocacy group that is no friend of chemical ag, told the Wall Street Journal: "If glyphosate isn't the safest herbicide, it's damn close."

The bad news is that agrichemical giants such as Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Chemical, and Syngenta have launched what amounts to an arms race. They are investing millions of dollars in a new generation of GE crops designed to survive blasts of older pesticides that are much more dangerous that Roundup and its imitators. Those include 2,4-D and dicamba, which leach easily into the soil and readily drift on the wind. They have been linked to cancers, increased fetal deaths, and chromosomal damage in humans.

Instead of shuddering in the face of an unfolding environmental catastrophe of their own making, chemical company representatives are rubbing their hands in anticipation of fields of dollars. Within five years, nearly half the country's corn and soybean acreage could be sprouting resistant superweeds. According to a Dow executive, for companies like his, "It will be a very significant opportunity."

And when 2,4-T-resistant weeds inevitably evolve, will that be an even more significant opportunity for the manufacturers of pesticides and GM crops?

Snap, Crackle, STOP! FTC Castigates Kellogg's Health Claims

Some folks never seem to get it. For the second time in less than a year, the world's biggest breakfast cereal maker has been chastised by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This time, the commission took Kellogg to task for "dubious claims" proclaiming in bold letters on boxes that its Rice Krispies bolstered children's immunity.

"We expect more from a great American company than making dubious claims—not once, but twice—that its cereals improve children's health," FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a press release. "Next time, Kellogg needs to stop and think twice about the claims it's making before rolling out a new ad campaign, so parents can make the best choices for their children."

In the earlier incident, Kellogg asserted that its sugar-laden (sugar and high fructose corn syrup are the second and third ingredients listed on the label) Frosted Mini-Wheats was "clinically shown to improve kids' attentiveness by 20%," according to the FTC. This time, the company boasted that Rice Krispies help support "your child's immunity" with 25 percent of the recommended daily value of antioxidants and nutrients.

The commission expanded the earlier settlement order so that Kellogg now is prohibited "from making claims about any health benefit of any food unless the claims are backed by scientific evidence and not misleading."

One question remains unanswered. With the health of children involved, why did it take a settlement order for the company to do that?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/06/a-chemical-arms-race-and-bogus-health-claims/57819/